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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 8 – before 5th birthday

Positive discipline techniques for your child

The basic tenant of positive discipline is that there are no bad children, just good and bad behaviours. Positive behaviour is encouraged, and negative behaviour is discussed.
In Short
Children are less able to regulate their emotions than adults.

Time out and the naughty step is not a place where children reflect. A child is usually too upset to calm down and reflect on their own behaviour.

Similarly, there is evidence from studies around the world that spanking, smacking and other forms of physical punishment do not improve either a child's behaviour or a child's emotional development.

Positive discipline instead uses a 'time in' approach where you take time to discuss feelings and behaviours at a calm moment.

Discipline should be about teaching your child and helping them to understand the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This needs to be put into the context of safety or empathy or respect for other people.

I don’t advocate the naughty step, timed timeouts or smacking. I think it is possible to be much more ambitious about how we teach our children to behave in a way that recognises how they think and feel.

There is a lot of assertion that children are manipulative and need discipline, but they do not have the brain skills to pull the wool over their parents’ eyes or manipulate them. They just react honestly. When you have a child, you can feel very judged as you try to cope and manage their behaviour but try not to fall into the trap of ‘being seen to parent’ by playing the part of a strict/sorted/super parent (delete as appropriate). We’ve all felt the pressure in front of friends, in-laws, and health care professionals to treat our children completely differently from how we would choose to treat them if we were alone.

Cringing and shame are powerful emotions and sometimes they completely overwhelm our priority as a parent. I remember delivering an ultimatum to my eldest child when she was a toddler. She wouldn’t say sorry at the park so I loudly and proudly announced, in front of the other parents and my friends who were there, that if she didn’t say sorry, we would be going home. She didn’t back down and so after only just arriving at the park on a beautiful day, I found myself tearfully having to follow through my threat and having to forcibly leave the park and go home. It was a lose–lose situation. My toddler didn’t learn a lesson; she lost her temper, and I had put social evaluation of peers ahead of my relationship with my child.

It’s common, and it will happen but remember my mantra about having the confidence to be true to yourself as a parent: ‘Parent,’ don’t be ‘Seen to Parent.’

To understand the best way to set limits and boundaries on your child’s behaviour it first helps to understand how your toddler’s mind develops.

Mirror Neurons, ‘Discipline’ and Learning

In 1992, Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist, and doctor at the University of Parma, made an accidental discovery in his research on neurobiology in monkeys. He discovered that brain neurons associated with movement ‘fired’ when the monkey watched a scientist reaching for a peanut. The monkey’s brain lit up the same way whether its body did an action or it watched another individual do that action.

With Rizzolatti’s observation, the concept of mirror neurons as a mechanism by which one animal learns from another was born. Since that first observation so-called ‘mirror neurons’ in conjunction with facial expressions have been hypothesised to be the mechanism by which human beings feel empathy. We feel empathy because when we see the anguish on a person’s face – our brains fire as if we feel anguish ourselves. Empathy, as opposed to sympathy, means understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes. Empathy is a better way to help teach children to behave with consideration rather than blindly following rules from a strict and distant parent.

Dan Siegal’s approach – Interpersonal neurobiology

Dan Siegel, a researcher at UCLA’s School of Medicine, has written several books and led the movement known as ‘interpersonal neurobiology’ that has the concept of mirror neurons at its centre. Interpersonal neurobiology treats the brain as a social organ in the same way that the heart is a physical organ. This is a fusion of neurology and the emotional system that develops in relationships. To conceptualise the brain as a social organ, the brain is described in the classic triune description. There is the brain stem (which controls basic life functions like breathing); the limbic system (which is the feeling part of the brain that controls basic survival behaviours like aggression and fear); and the cerebral cortex (which is the thinking rational brain).

Siegal explains that when a toddler or young child is acting out and having a tantrum we are essentially dealing with the limbic, emotional or reptilian portion of their brain. If their limbic brain responds with aggression then the limbic system of our brain (as the parent) may instinctively respond back in a ‘reptilian face off.’ So no one is thinking!

Children are not able to regulate their emotions very effectively. Their neo-frontal cortex is not fully grown (this final bit of brain development doesn’t occur until well into adulthood). Your role as a parent is to help your child to regulate their emotions over time until their own impulsive (limbic) brain doesn’t have so much control. Shouting at them may just turn aggression into fear – and what lesson does that teach?

Tantrums can be pretty common, especially in the toddler years – but often with older children too. If you anticipate a meltdown, you need to quickly take steps to diffuse the frustration before your child loses control. Rather than push your child to a big confrontation (children aren’t very receptive mid-tantrum), distract her with something compelling – point and say, for example, ‘Can you see the aeroplane going over the trees?’ This can change huge negative energy into huge positive energy almost instantly. You have successfully regulated your child’s emotions, and she will begin to relax and then later you can have a calmer, warmer discussion. She will be more receptive to your discussion then.

If your toddler or child continues to tantrum, just be there with them using calming non-verbal stroking and body language until she starts to calm down. She will be feeling out of control and maybe even frightened at her feelings. Having you there with her is a huge emotional support and calming influence.

Our brains are well integrated (via nerves) with our body, and there are many feedback loops where the body impacts the brain. For example, when we feel anxious we get butterflies in our tummy which is in turn picked up by our brain and makes us feel more anxious!

Siegal encourages us all to look into our bodies and to teach our children to do the same. In the same way, a meditating person does we can and should train ourselves to use our ‘mindsight’ to assess and make sense of how we feel. This essential emotional tool should be central to teaching our child to be true masters of their minds and bodies – what I think of as real, positive discipline. To help promote your child’s ‘mindsight,’ you can make sure that you have several times in the day where together you reflect on how you are both feeling and what has happened in the day. You need to schedule it into your daily routine; maybe after lunch or on the way to the park. Mindsight is hard brain work so make sure that you don’t relegate these important sessions to the times when your child is tired, hungry or fractious.

The evidence against smacking, spanking and physical punishment

A large meta-analysis (study of many studies) of 50 years of research on spanking by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan in the USA has reported that more children are smacked or spanked, the more likely they are to:

  • Defy their parents.
  • Display increased anti-social behavior and aggression.
  • Experience mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.

Indeed one of the studies authors concluded;

The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.
Professor Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, Associate professor, University of Michigan School of Social Work.

Sadly a 2014 UNICEF survey reported that 80 percent of parents around the world spank or smack their children in spite of the lack of evidence of positive effects of spanking and supporting evidence that smacking or spanking harms children’s behaviour and development.

It is emotionally confusing for a child when their attachment figure (usually a parent) is also a person who inflicts physical pain. This is because the limbic system senses danger and seeks safety in the arms of the attachment figure – but the attachment figure is the source of the danger at that moment. Put simply it’s hard for the child to absorb a meaningful lesson in the midst of this confusion and it keeps the limbic system in charge without developing the ‘muscle’ of the newly growing and developing neocortex (the rational thinking part of the brain).

Siegel extends this understanding of our internal state in understanding the associations that a child may make when punished. He has a simple mantra to describe what he thinks happens which is: ‘what fires together, wires together.’

Beyond the University of Austin study there is a lot of further research evidence that smacking is not an effective form of discipline and children who are smacked are more likely to suffer from depression, commit suicide and end up in prison. Again this is correlation rather than causation, and it is known that smacking is often more prevalent in chaotic families and chaotic communities.

Parents will often say that the only time they smacked their child was when they ran into the road. In this situation, what can we do instead?

This is a life or death situation and at that moment you need to respond quickly and remove the child from danger. However, as you both recover in the moment after the near miss, you can regulate both of your shattered nerves. Explain how dangerous what they did was in a firm tone and tell them how frightening that was for you. Don’t shut down the conversation and ostracise them as then you lose the opportunity to teach them about road safety – and surely that is the ultimate aim of discipline, to teach our children how to behave in a safe, caring and reflective way.

Time Out and the Naughty Step

Time out doesn’t give young children, and certainly toddlers, the opportunity to reflect because at this age they need their parents to help them make sense of what they did and what they feel. Instead, they are more likely to feel frightened and try to shut down their feelings as they sit there alone.

In their anger or fright, the child’s limbic system is active, and they often resist a time out. This often plays out with the parent physically forcing them multiple times to stay on the step. When they do give up and sink onto the step, they are not in a reflective state.

Siegel has suggested an alternative to time out on the naughty step alone, and he calls it ‘time in’. There is also a groundswell of support amongst early years specialists and educators about the potential benefits of teaching mindfulness to children from a young age. Mindfulness training such as simple breathing meditation time can have a hugely beneficial impact on child and adult alike. Often if you go along to child yoga, there will be a quiet meditation time at the end and it’s quite amazing to see a room full of little children lying calm and quiet enjoying noticing their body, their breath and tuning out the rest of the world.

Time in allows parents to help children to regulate their emotions and become aware of how they are feeling. Time in doesn’t happen in response to ‘naughtiness’ rather, like exercise or meditation, it becomes a consistent habit, a way of life and a daily emotional MOT.

This regulation and reflection can then prevent meltdowns and loss of emotional control.

A simple way to do this is to get into the habit of sharing your emotional response to an event with your child. So if a big dog ran up to you both and barked loudly you would later retell the story and go on to describe how you felt: ‘shocked,’ ‘scared’, ‘worried’. As your child gets better able to describe the event and how she felt you can affirm that by saying, e.g., ‘Yes you really jumped, you must have felt frightened.’ You can have this emotional discussion around all the flashpoints in the day and slowly teach your child to recognise their feelings in response to people, trials, and tribulations. This is an easier habit to get into than a scheduled time to have a time in.

Top Tip: If you make ‘time in’ a part of your ongoing conversation with your children you will feel the benefits with your own sharing, reflecting and emotional regulation because, let’s face it, being the parent of a child can really lead to intense feelings of frustration, anger, and sadness. I really think talking things through help you both to connect, bond and keep each other on a more even keel.

References and further reading

Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor (2016) Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses.’ Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 30(4), Jun 2016, 453-469

Pellegrino, Rizzolatti, et al. (1992). ‘Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study.’ Experimental Brain Research, 91, 176-180.

Siegel (2012) ‘Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind’ (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) Norton and Co.

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